Thursday, 19 February 2009

Bringing The House Down With Kevin McCloud

Grand Designs
Channel 4 - Wednesday 18th February, 9.00pm

The late-1990s were a faddish time for British television. Although in retrospect one can point to programmes that managed to avoid the subject of home (or garden) improvement, for a while it did seem pretty pervasive. In this crucible of dross was forged Grand Designs containing attractive elements of other shows but with the crucial twist of focusing on the construction of an entire house, not being interested in imposing artificial deadlines for the work, and following one person and (often) his family with emphatically no gimmickry.

More impressive still, the tone of the series was elevated by the inclusion of Kevin McCloud, a former designer who actually knew a thing or two about the subject. Witty, cautiously enthusiastic, sometimes philosophical, McCloud is such a television natural that they could give him free rein and just about any subject could be conveyed with intelligence and ease. His slight sense of detachment from the events of the builds they cover (though often ready to intervene in the form of second opinions or sceptical commentary) is refreshing in a world of Davina McCalls. Although never pleased when anything goes wrong, it cannot be said he is harrowed when events take a turn for the worse. In this respect there is something of Jerry Seinfeld about him and that vague preoccupation with chance embedded into Seinfeld has analogues here too.

In this episode we follow Richard and Sophie Hawkes. He is an architect by profession and from the start it is very clear that this is his big project. Any budding sympathy for Sophie as the long-suffering wife is immediately uprooted by the announcement that she works in the City of London (indeed her eventual redundancy towards the end of the build will later be regarded as a great boon on the basis that the tax free payout will offset the overspend). They are a pleasant, dynamic, and wealthy couple - though admittedly not wealthy to the usual extent that subjects of Grand Designs can be - presumably having met via some upper-middle class metropolitan dating website.

Richard's dream is to take a plot of land in the country, bought for the relative song of £53,000, which has an existing bungalow. This will be torn down and replaced with a building McCloud describes as exhibiting "avant-garde eco technology" which turns out to mean a series of box rooms over two floors, the centrepiece being a large "parabolic arch" which looks from the outside as if a giant wheel has been plunged into the earth by an angry yet apparently confused God. We're told, quite impressively, that the 26,000 hand-made clay tiles whose interweaving will construct this parabola (there is some detail on why this is a parabolic arch rather than just an arch which I had trouble following) thereby making the project an architectural first in Britain. At the planning stage McCloud observes and offers a few motivational comments such as how this is all "pretty wacky" and "counter-intuitive lunacy" which is a phrase I doubt anybody else currently broadcasting would even think to use.

As cedar beams and tiles begin to amass, it is revealed that Richard will take over project management responsibilities and his wife will draw on her fiscal nous to become the financial controller of the project. Her jolly-hockey-sticks enthusiasm over the fact that they will be destined to live in a cramped caravan for over a year is forced, but then it would be. Presumably with little else to do in the evening other than have sex with each other, we are soon informed that Sophie is pregnant. McCloud and Richard however are more excited by the development of the roof. To graphically illustrate his concerns with the plans, McCloud carves onto a clay tile "the roof had better stand up" though this is surely true of every building project he's been associated with, parabolic arch or not.

Without sounding too Dennis Norden it is only now that we segue into a commercial break. My usual dash to make tea was halted in its tracks by the new Co-op advert, one of epic length which shows various scenes throughout modern Britain with the suggestion that Co-op are underpinning everything as a sort-of fabric to our lives. All this was performed to Bob Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind a travesty which still grates hours after the broadcast. I may have to avoid commercial television for the next six weeks.

Happily the programme resumes to a three foot high scale-model of the roof which Richard is constructing. When finished he invites a genuinely terrified McCloud to stand on it with him. Richard and McCloud embrace on top of the structure whilst a small crowd of people watch, clearly hoping the whole thing dramatically collapses and somebody breaks something. Whilst McCloud desperately tries to keep the balance of their collective weight even, Richard is cock-a-hoop. McCloud screams like a girl. After savouring the moment, McCloud gets off and, foreshadowing events to come, the little roof continues to work until the weight distribution is uneven and it then collapses. Richard does a better job than I would have done at being brave as some tiles jut into his ankle rather nastily. Perhaps because of this excitement, baby Oscar is born although we are not treated to any footage of the birth.

As the construction of the real roof begins (with an enthusiastic McCloud volunteering to test the first few tiles for strength by pushing them with all his might), we are given more details of the eco aspect of the architecture. This is hard to follow but the essential concept to grasp is that the house is "passive". Despite what must have been literally dozens of references to its passivity I am still none the wiser what it means although treble-glazed windows imported from Europe seemed critical. Indeed when the windows eventually turned up, Richard described their hesitant installation as "more nerve-wracking than child birth", although as has been demonstrated before, sympathy with Sophie is quickly shot when we are told the windows cost £43,000.

McCloud then delivers a piece to camera where he demonstrates the passivity of the house by covering a shoe box with wrapping-paper and is immediately upstaged by an almighty crash from the real house behind him. Wonderfully, they kept footage of what he did next which was to slowly amble over to the building to try and get a better look. It turns out that weight was distributed unevenly on the roof (the lessons of the earlier model not learnt) but "the important thing was that nobody was hurt" says Richard somewhat unconvincingly.

At this stage there is time for reflection on the more homely details. McCloud seems positively shocked when it's revealed the building cannot sustain a cat-flap (again, it's a passive house...) and is downright poleaxed when Richard proudly announces they won't be including a letter-box which inspires a McInroe style "seriously?!" from McCloud. Talk turns to the "airtight" nature of the house, where McCloud correctly observes in his commentary that if Richard doesn't get the ventilation right his family will suffocate. Of course, this forgets about the fact that there'll be plenty of air once the roof collapses on them.

We are treated to an early morning scene of Richard staring transfixed at his house from the window of their caravan. I am concerned for him that he may struggle to find meaning in his life after the build. Their child does not seem to dominate his thoughts and he seems like a man that will move onto a bigger obsession after this one. Like the architectural equivalent of Richard Branson. It is this sort of thing that leads to giant gherkins. Mind you, he is not the only one that's visibly awed. Now that the roof is finished, McCloud is allowed inside to see how work is progressing on the interior. McCloud actually goes around whispering about how "primal" it is.

Meanwhile the seasons amble by. December 2008 comes along and McCloud turns up again. I have to say that I for one do not remember it looking so picturesque but then again I have a lot of confidence in the structural soundness of my house, so perhaps I'm less inclined to live for the moment. We are then treated to shots of the "ceramic firmament" (or the floor to you and me), which is almost as intriguing as the roof. The conceit here is to use recycled glass and resin and anything else lying about at the local tip. Extreme close-ups of nails and paperclips follow, suspended in time (and resin), like the carriers of dinosaur DNA.

And in a flash we are brought right up-to-date, February 2009. As is the custom, McCloud visits the completed house for a guided tour. And you can't knock the Hawkes's for the job they've done - though I could have done without one of the windows being embossed with the word "Hawkes". The inside has something of a cavern about it, and despite all the windows it looked quite dark to me. Certainly there is ample space which, true to expensive design projects, is rarely encumbered by furniture. I have seen kitchens in Homebase showrooms which are more personalised. Indeed, the whole house is doubtless a bugger to clean, the offence caused by the merest hint of a stray Hello magazine or a leaning pot-plant magnified by the absence of almost anything else. This apparently also includes baby Oscar who was firmly absent from the viewing but whose presence must be a daily affront to the architectural splendour.

McCloud likes to examine the functional and is taken by the idea of a bath in the bedroom. Sophie describes how Richard sometimes gets wearied of talking to her whilst she's having a bath so she can now wallow in the tub, and he can lie in bed - a description of a moment of touching, day-to-day intimacy that you rarely see captured on television. No need to be sentimental though, since we are informed that complementing this loveliness is a series of sensors implanted all over the property which Cambridge University are using to "monitor the performance" of the house. I was, at this point, completely at sea and somehow this house, just by being passive, manages to generate sufficient energy such that Richard and Sophie can sell £1,800-worth back to the Grid on an annual basis.

In a Jerry Springer-style finish, McCloud always delivers a summing-up to camera. Unlike Springer, this is well-written, genuine, uplifting, and generous about the character of both the finished property and its designer, often praising their ambition and daring. In a personal project such as this, it's probably rare anyone thinks to say 'thank you' on behalf of architecture but in this instance the project is deemed "creative... risk-taking... ground-breaking... the efforts of its maker are heroic". Hopefully this little speech can be played back to himself by Richard in the future if he's ever having a bad day.

I really like Grand Designs. I will never design and build my own house and this programme gives me enough depth in an interesting subject without losing interest or focus. Kevin McCloud is an authentic and natural broadcaster, quietly witty, well-informed, and a natural observer. He engages with the subject and is not afraid to offer his own insights. The basic content of the show never changes but that is no bad thing. It is watchable, surprisingly well filmed, and entertaining. Long may it continue!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, funny review, can't wait for more!